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As I write this on January 31, 2011, Al-Jazeera English is ireporting that six of its reporters have been arrested by the Egyptian military. Meanwhile there has been ongoing speculation as to whether or not the Egyptian military will support the ongoing protests against the Mubarak regime. The live video feed via internet is broadcasting protests across the nation. The protests are growing in front of the camera’s eye.
The old Mubarak cabinet has been dismissed and a new one is being assembled. A tighter curfew has gone into effect across the nation. Yet everyone is ignoring it. Furthermore, calls for a general strike are growing; the opposition has issued a call for a “mega-protest” on Tuesday and the major Islamist opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood has called for a peaceful transfer of power.
Someone who might be among Washington’s favorite men in the opposition, Mohammed El-Baradei, is supposedly under house arrest, but has appeared in Tahrir Square and called for Mubarak to step down. Others are calling for a trial of Mubarak and his government. Apparently, no protesters were killed by the security police yesterday, although over 150 have been killed since Friday. Some officers have met with Mubarak, while the military rank and file remain non-committal. Major clerics are reminding their faithful that the shedding of blood is prohibited under Islam. As I watch the video, a noticeable difference between yesterday and today’s crowd and protests earlier in the week is the growing presence of women.
According to a report published by Reuters on July 13, 2009, 77 million of the 80 million Egyptians live on less than $1 a day. Around 30% of the workforce is unemployed, 7% of children miss schools because of poverty. There are over 100,000 homeless youth. Egypt’s official foreign debt is around 12 billion dollars, yet several of Mubarak’s corrupt ruling elites have stolen almost half this amount from Egyptian banks.
These facts, along with the record of abuse by police forces defy Washington’s statement that it is “not too late” for the Mubarak regime to reform itself and become a democratic government. This statement is comparable to the Carter administration’s support of the Shah of Iran in 1978 and 1979 while street protests that eventually included close to 10% of the Iranian population rocked the nation.
Although there are a number of major differences between the Iranian revolution and the current situation in Egypt–with the primary one possibly being the national differences–the fact is that popular uprisings are exactly that no matter where they occur. That being said, and with the understanding that all sides in Egypt are aware of history, if the process underway continues, two things to watch out for are the response to the general strike call, the Tuesday protest call and whether or not Mubarak is able to woo any leading elements of the opposition into his sphere. If the response to the general strike and Tuesday protest call is massive, than one can expect to see Mubarak either forcefully crack down on the protests (if he can find any security units to go along with him) or perhaps even invite someone like El-Baradei into his government. Of course, if the latter occurs, El Baradei runs the risk of losing whatever support he has amongst the protesters. If that happens (and using the Iranian experience as a template), then the way for more religious elements opens wider.
If El-Baradei and other more moderate elements refuse to accept any offers of reconciliation from Mubarak, then it would seem the only means that would remain for Mubarak would be resignation or repression. His appointment of the current head of Egyptian intelligence to the vice presidency seems to indicate he may very well choose the latter. While official appointments with little meaning are being made by Mubarak, thugs from his ruling party have been captured by Cairo residents breaking into homes and shops in that city’s wealthier sections. In response, Egyptians citizens have begun to set up neighborhood watch committees.
One of the Egyptian movement groups not talked about very much in the west is Kefaya or the Egyptian Movement for Change. This group, which was announced in 2004, is a network of (mostly youthful) opposition groups and individuals from across the ideological spectrum with the primary goal of ending the Mubarak family rule. Its role in the current rebellion is publicly unannounced, but the fact that the protests seems to have begun in the universities and amongst Egyptian youth tends to encourage the supposition that Kefaya was instrumental in organizing them. Given the recent rebellions and revolutions across the Arab world, perhaps the synthesis represented by this movement is the wave of an Arab future.
If so, then the regimes in Yemen, Jordan and other Arab nations would be smart to initiate reforms sooner rather than later. That is, unless it is already too late. As for Palestine, its administrative forces should pay close attention. Not only might they lose whatever authority they have left among the Palestinians, but the fact of an Arab world composed of popular governments has got to be one that Israel fears. After all, it is the US-sponsored regimes like Mubarak’s that have been essential to Tel Aviv projecting its expansionist policies across the region. For Mahmoud Abbas to express his support for Mubarak while the streets of Egypt are filled with protesters demanding his resignation is extremely shortsighted. Furthermore, it looks like a political calculation Abbas and the Palestinian Authority can ill afford to make given the recent Wikileaks cable releases revealing the PA’s willingness to concede to Israeli demands many Palestinians consider at best anathema to Palestinian national interests.
Ignoring governments for the moment, what do these protests mean for people around the world? As virtually any earthling knows, the past decade has seen an increase in economic disparity and political repression in almost every nation. From New York to Cairo; from Beijing to Buenos Aires, the neoliberal world order (or monopoly capitalism’s latest phase) is feeling the effects of its greedy attempts to privatize the very basics of human survival. The legal and illegal corruption these attempts and the poverty they have spawned have been felt the deepest in nations like Tunisia and Egypt. Despotic government officials, their national and international business partners and the security forces that protect them have robbed and brutalized whole societies.
All the while, those governments in the global north and west that have backed this phenomenon have in turn removed freedoms and economic security from large swaths of their own populations. Consequently, many nations have seen popular uprisings against these governmental actions, especially from their student and working class elements. But only two populations have reached the point of no return to the past: Tunisia and Egypt. Their example serves as a beacon.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org